Dante’s epic The Divine Comedy depicts an archetypical journey of a human being through the torments of hell and the cleansing pains of purgatory, into the pleasures of paradise. Throughout the history of human storytelling, this journey has been recounted by author upon author, poet upon poet.
One recent iteration of the story appears in the song “Roll Away Your Stone,” by the British band Mumford and Sons. Like Dante, Mumford and Sons (M&S) describes a journey through the darkest depths and eventually into the light, the ages-old drama of a soul’s redemption. This same drama unfolds in our own souls as we journey through life.
The Heroic Journey
The Heroic Journey takes many different forms. In Dante’s Comedy, the journey is a literal, physical one, though of course weighted with spiritual significance. In “Roll Away Your Stone” (or RAYS), the journey is internal, taking place within a man’s soul. Let’s take a look at the first stanza of the song itself:
Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine
Together we can see what we will find
Don’t leave me alone at this time
For I’m afraid of what I will discover inside
The image of the stone being rolled away evokes the story of Christ’s Resurrection, another example (the example, in fact) of the Heroic Journey. In the Resurrection narrative, Christ passes through the depths of hell to the glories of paradise. What lies behind the stone of Christ’s tomb is all the powers of death and hell that have just triumphed through the act of killing God. It is a terrifying thing to confront, but confront it one must in order to pass through death into life. “Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine,” says the speaker in M&S’s song. He is prepared to undertake the journey, despite being “afraid of what [he] will discover inside,” so long as he does not have to journey alone.
No one is ever meant to make the journey alone. In Dante’s poem, the Roman poet Virgil leads the hero through Hell. Virgil tells Dante what he can expect to find on the journey and explains their encounters as they go along. In RAYS, the speaker addresses his own “Virgil,” who will journey with him and who tells him what he will find behind his stone.
‘Cause you told me that I would find a hole
Within the fragile substance of my soul
And I have filled this void with things unreal
And all the while my character it steals
After rolling away his stone, as expected, the speaker in the song encounters an overwhelming darkness:
Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think
And yet it dominates the things I see
Though he was already afraid of what he would discover, M&S’s speaker is nevertheless surprised by the dominance of his interior darkness. He considers “darkness” a harsh term, indicating that he had not previously believed his interior condition would be this serious. His very surprise reveals the great necessity for his descent.
It is now that his mentor, his “Virgil,” plays his most important role. This mentor has already undergone his own heroic journey and therefore knows both what his “Dante” will find inside of his soul and what might be able to save him. He knows the workings of grace, because it was grace that led him home and changed his own heart. Grace is the only path through which his “Dante” will find redemption. He knows that grace works best by burning the bridges to one’s former way of life.
It seems that all my bridges have been burnt
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with the restart
Once the speaker in RAYS makes his descent, there is no turning back. “It seems that all my bridges have been burnt,” he says. The only way back is forward. He has reached the purgatory stage, having passed through the darkness and into grace. It is here that he comes to realize, through the guidance of his mentor, that without grace his journey is meaningless. Only through grace can he overcome the darkness dominating his inner self and so enter the paradise stage of his journey.
Stars hide your fires
These here are my desires
And I will give them up to you this time around
And so I’ll be found
With my stake stuck in this ground
Marking the territory of this newly empassioned soul
By this point in the song, the speaker has completely embraced his newfound identity and has no wish to return to his former way of life. He now knows his true desires and “will give them up to [the stars] this time around.” He has found a place that is truly his own, where he can be truly himself, a territory for his “newly empassioned soul.” If this isn’t paradise, then nothing is.
The Beatific Vision
Dante’s Divine Comedy ends with the Beatific Vision, with Dante standing face-to-face with his creator. M&S describes the next stage of the story. Their “Dante” has made an interior journey and come to peace with his deepest desires, but he still continues to live in the world. Joseph Campbell, in describing the archetypical Heroic Journey, describes the final stage of the journey as the Return, where the hero comes back to the place where he lived before his journey, but transformed. The hero is “master of both worlds,” able to use what he has gained during his journey and apply it to the normal world.
We see this same phenomenon at work in the final stanza of RAYS. In this stanza, the speaker encounters something or someone who used to exert a strong influence on him, an influence for the worst. Because of his journey of self-discovery, he is now a master of both worlds, like his mentor before him. He is able to use the knowledge and insight from this journey to see through the deceptions of this person or this vice that used to control him. He now possesses the wisdom and strength to put his foot down and say:
But you, you’ve gone too far this time
You have neither reason nor rhyme
With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine